The next morning rose mild and bright, with a promise of summer in the air.
The sunlight slanted joyously down Lily's street, mellowed the blistere_ouse-front, gilded the paintless railings of the door-step, and struc_rismatic glories from the panes of her darkened window.
When such a day coincides with the inner mood there is intoxication in it_reath; and Selden, hastening along the street through the squalor of it_orning confidences, felt himself thrilling with a youthful sense o_dventure. He had cut loose from the familiar shores of habit, and launche_imself on uncharted seas of emotion; all the old tests and measures were lef_ehind, and his course was to be shaped by new stars.
That course, for the moment, led merely to Miss Bart's boarding-house; but it_habby door-step had suddenly become the threshold of the untried. As h_pproached he looked up at the triple row of windows, wondering boyishly whic_ne of them was hers. It was nine o'clock, and the house, being tenanted b_orkers, already showed an awakened front to the street. He remembere_fterward having noticed that only one blind was down. He noticed too tha_here was a pot of pansies on one of the window sills, and at once conclude_hat the window must be hers: it was inevitable that he should connect he_ith the one touch of beauty in the dingy scene.
Nine o'clock was an early hour for a visit, but Selden had passed beyond al_uch conventional observances. He only knew that he must see Lily Bart a_nce—he had found the word he meant to say to her, and it could not wai_nother moment to be said. It was strange that it had not come to his lip_ooner—that he had let her pass from him the evening before without being abl_o speak it. But what did that matter, now that a new day had come? It was no_ word for twilight, but for the morning.
Selden ran eagerly up the steps and pulled the bell; and even in his state o_elf-absorption it came as a sharp surprise to him that the door should ope_o promptly. It was still more of a surprise to see, as he entered, that i_ad been opened by Gerty Farish—and that behind her, in an agitated blur,
several other figures ominously loomed.
"Lawrence!" Gerty cried in a strange voice, "how could you get here s_uickly?"—and the trembling hand she laid on him seemed instantly to clos_bout his heart.
He noticed the other faces, vague with fear and conjecture—he saw th_andlady's imposing bulk sway professionally toward him; but he shrank back,
putting up his hand, while his eyes mechanically mounted the steep blac_alnut stairs, up which he was immediately aware that his cousin was about t_ead him.
A voice in the background said that the doctor might be back at any minute—an_hat nothing, upstairs, was to be disturbed. Some one else exclaimed: "It wa_he greatest mercy—" then Selden felt that Gerty had taken him gently by th_and, and that they were to be suffered to go up alone.
In silence they mounted the three flights, and walked along the passage to _losed door. Gerty opened the door, and Selden went in after her. Though th_lind was down, the irresistible sunlight poured a tempered golden flood int_he room, and in its light Selden saw a narrow bed along the wall, and on th_ed, with motionless hands and calm unrecognizing face, the semblance of Lil_art.
That it was her real self, every pulse in him ardently denied. Her real sel_ad lain warm on his heart but a few hours earlier—what had he to do with thi_stranged and tranquil face which, for the first time, neither paled no_rightened at his coming?
Gerty, strangely tranquil too, with the conscious self-control of one who ha_inistered to much pain, stood by the bed, speaking gently, as if transmittin_ final message.
"The doctor found a bottle of chloral—she had been sleeping badly for a lon_ime, and she must have taken an overdose by mistake… . There is no doubt o_hat—no doubt—there will be no question—he has been very kind. I told him tha_ou and I would like to be left alone with her—to go over her things befor_ny one else comes. I know it is what she would have wished."
Selden was hardly conscious of what she said. He stood looking down on th_leeping face which seemed to lie like a delicate impalpable mask over th_iving lineaments he had known. He felt that the real Lily was still there,
close to him, yet invisible and inaccessible; and the tenuity of the barrie_etween them mocked him with a sense of helplessness. There had never bee_ore than a little impalpable barrier between them—and yet he had suffered i_o keep them apart! And now, though it seemed slighter and frailer than ever,
it had suddenly hardened to adamant, and he might beat his life out against i_n vain.
He had dropped on his knees beside the bed, but a touch from Gerty arouse_im. He stood up, and as their eyes met he was struck by the extraordinar_ight in his cousin's face.
"You understand what the doctor has gone for? He has promised that there shal_e no trouble—but of course the formalities must be gone through. And I aske_im to give us time to look through her things first—"
He nodded, and she glanced about the small bare room. "It won't take long,"
"No—it won't take long," he agreed.
She held his hand in hers a moment longer, and then, with a last look at th_ed, moved silently toward the door. On the threshold she paused to add: "Yo_ill find me downstairs if you want me."
Selden roused himself to detain her. "But why are you going? She would hav_ished—"
Gerty shook her head with a smile. "No: this is what she would have wished—"
and as she spoke a light broke through Selden's stony misery, and he saw dee_nto the hidden things of love.
The door closed on Gerty, and he stood alone with the motionless sleeper o_he bed. His impulse was to return to her side, to fall on his knees, and res_is throbbing head against the peaceful cheek on the pillow. They had neve_een at peace together, they two; and now he felt himself drawn downward int_he strange mysterious depths of her tranquillity.
But he remembered Gerty's warning words—he knew that, though time had cease_n this room, its feet were hastening relentlessly toward the door. Gerty ha_iven him this supreme half-hour, and he must use it as she willed.
He turned and looked about him, sternly compelling himself to regain hi_onsciousness of outward things. There was very little furniture in the room.
The shabby chest of drawers was spread with a lace cover, and set out with _ew gold-topped boxes and bottles, a rose-coloured pin-cushion, a glass tra_trewn with tortoise-shell hair-pins—he shrank from the poignant intimacy o_hese trifles, and from the blank surface of the toilet-mirror above them.
These were the only traces of luxury, of that clinging to the minut_bservance of personal seemliness, which showed what her other renunciation_ust have cost. There was no other token of her personality about the room,
unless it showed itself in the scrupulous neatness of the scant articles o_urniture: a washing-stand, two chairs, a small writing-desk, and the littl_able near the bed. On this table stood the empty bottle and glass, and fro_hese also he averted his eyes.
The desk was closed, but on its slanting lid lay two letters which he took up.
One bore the address of a bank, and as it was stamped and sealed, Selden,
after a moment's hesitation, laid it aside. On the other letter he read Gu_renor's name; and the flap of the envelope was still ungummed.
Temptation leapt on him like the stab of a knife. He staggered under it,
steadying himself against the desk. Why had she been writing t_renor—writing, presumably, just after their parting of the previous evening?
The thought unhallowed the memory of that last hour, made a mock of the wor_e had come to speak, and defiled even the reconciling silence upon which i_ell. He felt himself flung back on all the ugly uncertainties from which h_hought he had cast loose forever. After all, what did he know of her life?
Only as much as she had chosen to show him, and measured by the world'_stimate, how little that was! By what right—the letter in his hand seemed t_sk—by what right was it he who now passed into her confidence through th_ate which death had left unbarred? His heart cried out that it was by righ_f their last hour together, the hour when she herself had placed the key i_is hand. Yes—but what if the letter to Trenor had been written afterward?
He put it from him with sudden loathing, and setting his lips, addresse_imself resolutely to what remained of his task. After all, that task would b_asier to perform, now that his personal stake in it was annulled.
He raised the lid of the desk, and saw within it a cheque-book and a fe_ackets of bills and letters, arranged with the orderly precision whic_haracterized all her personal habits. He looked through the letters first,
because it was the most difficult part of the work. They proved to be few an_nimportant, but among them he found, with a strange commotion of the heart,
the note he had written her the day after the Brys' entertainment.
"When may I come to you?"—his words overwhelmed him with a realization of th_owardice which had driven him from her at the very moment of attainment.
Yes—he had always feared his fate, and he was too honest to disown hi_owardice now; for had not all his old doubts started to life again at th_ere sight of Trenor's name?
He laid the note in his card-case, folding it away carefully, as somethin_ade precious by the fact that she had held it so; then, growing once mor_ware of the lapse of time, he continued his examination of the papers.
To his surprise, he found that all the bills were receipted; there was not a_npaid account among them. He opened the cheque-book, and saw that, the ver_ight before, a cheque of ten thousand dollars from Mrs. Peniston's executor_ad been entered in it. The legacy, then, had been paid sooner than Gerty ha_ed him to expect. But, turning another page or two, he discovered wit_stonishment that, in spite of this recent accession of funds, the balance ha_lready declined to a few dollars. A rapid glance at the stubs of the las_heques, all of which bore the date of the previous day, showed that betwee_our or five hundred dollars of the legacy had been spent in the settlement o_ills, while the remaining thousands were comprehended in one cheque, mad_ut, at the same time, to Charles Augustus Trenor.
Selden laid the book aside, and sank into the chair beside the desk. He leane_is elbows on it, and hid his face in his hands. The bitter waters of lif_urged high about him, their sterile taste was on his lips. Did the cheque t_renor explain the mystery or deepen it? At first his mind refused to act—h_elt only the taint of such a transaction between a man like Trenor and a gir_ike Lily Bart. Then, gradually, his troubled vision cleared, old hints an_umours came back to him, and out of the very insinuations he had feared t_robe, he constructed an explanation of the mystery. It was true, then, tha_he had taken money from Trenor; but true also, as the contents of the littl_esk declared, that the obligation had been intolerable to her, and that a_he first opportunity she had freed herself from it, though the act left he_ace to face with bare unmitigated poverty.
That was all he knew—all he could hope to unravel of the story. The mute lip_n the pillow refused him more than this—unless indeed they had told him th_est in the kiss they had left upon his forehead. Yes, he could now read int_hat farewell all that his heart craved to find there; he could even draw fro_t courage not to accuse himself for having failed to reach the height of hi_pportunity.
He saw that all the conditions of life had conspired to keep them apart; sinc_is very detachment from the external influences which swayed her ha_ncreased his spiritual fastidiousness, and made it more difficult for him t_ive and love uncritically. But at least he HAD loved her—had been willing t_take his future on his faith in her—and if the moment had been fated to pas_rom them before they could seize it, he saw now that, for both, it had bee_aved whole out of the ruin of their lives.
It was this moment of love, this fleeting victory over themselves, which ha_ept them from atrophy and extinction; which, in her, had reached out to hi_n every struggle against the influence of her surroundings, and in him, ha_ept alive the faith that now drew him penitent and reconciled to her side.
He knelt by the bed and bent over her, draining their last moment to its lees;
and in the silence there passed between them the word which made all clear.